Pyramind Graduation 08 Program cover



Keynote Speech


Good afternoon, and congratulations! You are now all certified, up-and-coming studio badasses, and I refuse to get into a production competition with any of you! Since you studied at Pyramind, you have learned some entrepreneurial skills as well, which means you're better prepared for what's coming. And whats coming is the next stage of your education in the school of hard knocks, as you build your business or look for employment. You don't need my production advice, so I'm going to talk briefly about the working world. Some of this might seem obvious but in my experience a lot of people screw these things up. So even if you've heard it all before, listen up!

We all know that the economy is sour right now, but you might be able to make lemonade out of that lemon. Companies are laying off staff to cut costs, but they often still need work done, and that offers opportunities for independent contractors. If you can produce quality projects efficiently, keeping your overhead down, you may be able to get some of that work. That doesn't mean you can't work with bands or shouldnt seek in-house employment with a commercial studio, game company, or broadcast facility, but you can operate your project studio at the same time.

Don't overlook the audio needs of businesses and government and nonprofits. Audio production is not limited to music, and you are an audio professional. Think broadly. Commercial spots and instructional video for the Web require voiceovers, they might involve sound effects, and they usually require background music. Somebody will get paid to do that work, and that could be you. It might not be as much fun as producing bands, but you're not in school anymore, and you need to make a living. Welcome to the real world.

Dont undervalue yourself. Sometimes you'll work for little or no money in order to gain experience, build your portfolio, help a good cause, and earn publicity and good will. And trade services with friends, but make sure that it's a two-way street. Sometimes you will take a low-paying project because it will buy today's lunch, and that's just the way it is. But if you undervalue yourself too often, others will undervalue you too. If the person who wants your services is doing a project for profit, they ought to pay you a fair price. That goes for live gigs, too. Welcome to the real world.

If you are operating a service business, such as a project studio, make sure that you and your client agree from the beginning that if they increase their requirements after the agreement has been finalized, you will do the extra work, but it will cost them more. Sometimes you just have to do some extra work for free to service a good client and maintain your reputation. But in general, negotiate some limits before you agree to the deal. And if you are an employee, and you are not given the tools and time to do what's expected, keep working but start looking for your next gig because that one is probably heading for the rocks. Been there, done that. Welcome to the real world.

If you have a project studio with multiple clients, you will spend at least as much time running a business as you will producing projects. You may have to do everything yourself, including cleaning the bathroom and feeding the partridge in the pear tree.  So organize your time and learn to work efficiently. Learn about project management, basic bookkeeping, studio management, databases, and so on, because you're a businessperson as well as a creative wacko. Welcome to the real world.

If you own a business, there's no such thing as sick leave or paid vacation. If you work for someone else, especially in todays economy, you may be under pressure to work nonstop, including weekends and holidays. Game companies are notorious for this, but they aren't the only ones. Working long hours goes with the job in this industry. But take breaks, and beware of endless 80-hour weeks. They will literally kill you.

And take vacations where you get away from the studio. If you can't afford to travel somewhere, go play tourist in the town where you live. It doesnt have to cost a lot of money. If you dont take time off, your work will suffer, you'll eventually burnout, and you will miss out on parts of life that you might regret later.

Each of us has different needs, of course, but I suggest that you consider your priorities carefully. Don't ignore your loved ones, your spiritual life, and your physical and mental health. If your ethnic traditions are important to you, take time to honor them so that you never forget who you are and where you came from. And remember the example of Ebenezer Scrooge: don't become a slave to your business and ignore or devalue your friends and neighbors.

It's a clich but it's true that business is business. Corporations are cold by nature, and they won't care a lick about you or your business when they think they don't need you anymore. Even long-time clients and personal friends often make business and creative decisions that they think are in their own best interests, without regard for you. So don't be surprised when you get dumped or even outright screwed. It's going to happen sometimes, and it will piss you off, but you have to take it in stride to preserve your mental health. Welcome to the real world.

So take pride in your art and craft, and strive for excellence, not because it will earn you loyalty or love or admiration, but because you love the work, you have a business to think about, and you want to sleep peacefully and look in the mirror without shame.

Never come into the studio or into a job with a sense of entitlement, a belief that you should be given preferment or professional respect before youve earned it. Keep your temper and leave the attitude at home. Do the work to the best of your ability, treat everyone with personal respect, admit it when you're wrong and sometimes when you aren't sure. Learn to take constructive criticism, even when you disagree with it.

And of great importance, be patient. Keep your goals in front of you. Keep your eyes on the prize. I'm not saying you should be passive or let people take advantage of you; anyone who knows me knows better. But most people who appear to have overnight success actually worked long and hard for many years before they made it. Don't expect anything to be given to you, and when you get a good opportunity, prove you deserve it.

As soon as you are able, start giving something back to our industry and to your community. Mentor others. Pass the knowledge on. When you get to the top, send the elevator back down for the next person. Do some charitable work for whatever cause touches your heart. Get involved with industry organizations such as NARAS and AES that help to build the industry in which you make your living. That's smart for your business anyway, it helps you expand your personal network. Remember that you owe a debt to all of the people who helped you get started and move up. Pay that debt by sending the elevator back down for the next person.

Finally, pro audio is a tough business, even in good times. We all want to make a good living, of course, but we are in this industry because we love it, not to get rich. If you love your work, have talent, strive for excellence, and keep in mind the things I've said today, you will find a way to succeed. At a few points I've been homeless and pretty near starving, but I never stopped working hard, I did not blame my difficulties on other people, and I never lost faith that I would eventually find my path to success. I did find that path, and it has led me here on this day. Now I am sending the elevator back down for you. 

Thank you, good luck, and congratulations on your achievement.

A performing musician since early childhood, Steve Oppenheimer studied piano, composition, audio engineering, and electronic music at the Berklee College of Music and holds that schools Distinguished Alumnus Award. He also earned a BA in Anthropology at the University of Maryland before resuming his career as a performer, session player, sound designer, and arranger.

In mid 1987, Steve O joined the editorial staff of Mix and Electronic Musician becoming the Editor of Electronic Musician in 1997. Over the next ten years, he cofounded Remix, Onstage, and Music Education Technology magazines and produced a string of music-technology Web sites, videos, and other products. In 2007, he was promoted to Director of Technology for the Penton Audio Group, which includes Mix, EM, and Remix. Steve left Penton in June 2008 but continues to edit articles for EM and is a consultant, technical writer, and editor for several audio-industry PR firms and manufacturers.

See the graduation program.

Visit Pyramind!